How To Make Montessori Sandpaper Letters

As much as I love the Montessori method, I don’t love the prices of the equipment, especially if you have to add the shipping fee on top, and so when I started along this journey, I made what I could. If you are looking on how to use the Sandpaper Letters, there are some FAQ’s at the end of the post and a link to the next post, which is all about presenting the lesson.

What are sandpaper letters and what are they used for?

Montessori sandpaper letters are tactile letters. Basically, it’s a letter card that the child uses with their first and middle fingers to feel as they trace the shape of the letter, whilst making the phonetic sound. It helps them remember both the shape and with hand-eye coordination. We often used the sandpaper letters along with the sand tray and small movable alphabet to learn the sounds of the letters and their shape rather than the names of the letters.

Montessori children use sandpaper letter work as sensorial exercises when they are in a sensitive period for language.

I made these Montessori sandpaper letters in June 2007 and they were on the shelves for a good chunk of that time. We have also used them with various friends that I have taught along the way. Although they don’t actually use sandpaper, they have stood the test of time and are still going strong. They are one of the Montessori language activities that can be used for teaching ESL too. And of course you can adapt the idea for which ever language you are using. Sandpaper numbers are also a great way to help kids to learn their numbers.

In a school environment the Montessori materials need to take more wear and tear, I’m not sure how these would hold up to a class full of kids but to use at home, they are perfect.

Why no sandpaper?

Two reasons, firstly and probably the most important, I made the touch boards for my son and he won’t touch them! He hates the feel of sandpaper. I don’t mind using sandpaper, but I hate cutting it, so that was the secondary reason. I decided to go with sticky felt, the texture is different to the board so it still serves the purpose. I have seen people use glitter glue too, I’ll share my experience with that in a moment, but use whatever works for you. As long as the texture of the letter is different to the board it should work.

The Background:

Maria Montessori developed the sandpaper letters to help children develop the muscle memory of the letter as well as to introduce the letter shapes and letter sound. They are multi-sensory which is important for young children as they are still in a tactile stage of development.

In Montessori education, we believe that children should learn to write before reading because it is easier. If a child is asked to write a word, say “cat” they already has a visual image of this word in their head and only need to take apart the word, letter by letter, to reproduce the word. Writing is a decoding skill.

Reading, on the other hand, the child needs to clarify the sound of each letter, one by one and then put the distinct sounds together, c – a – t then ca then cat. Before they have combined all the letters together, they has no idea what the word can be. Reading is an encoding skill, and so more difficult.

Obviously, as their reading skill increases they will instantly recognise some words, but every time he comes across an unfamiliar word, they have the same problem. Although phonics is an important part of the language process, English is not a phonic based language and so children need to be exposed to “sight” words too.

First up – what I didn’t do, and why!

It took me an age to decide how to make this set of sandpaper letters. At first I couldn’t find any pre-cut board the right size so I considered using laminated card instead. My ‘great’ plan was to print out the letters onto the right coloured card (blue for vowels, the rest pink) and then laminate them. I was then going to use glitter glue over the letters to give a textured finish. Luckily, I had the sense to make a test version before embarking on the project. It was just as well, since the glitter fell off after 2 days. Back to square one.

Then I discovered that Tokyu Hands (a hobby/craft/everything cool store) sell pre-cut boards 100mm x 150 mm, perfect!

After scouring web groups like the yahoo based Montessori groups (I know, how old school! You guys have it easy with Facebook!) I came up with a fab idea (well, someone else’s suggestion) to use the non stick tread that you use on stairs, she explained that because the glue on the back is super strong; it was a great alternative to sandpaper, which I was trying to avoid using. I thought it would be a much harder job to actually use sandpaper, plus I hate cutting it. So, off to the home centre I went, only to discover that they only do the stair grip stuff in strips in Japan. Bummer.

Back to square one, again! I will not be defeated!

It looked like I was going to have to go the sandpaper route when I had a bit of brainwave, sticky backed felt! I remembered it being super sticky, so I dug a scrap out and stuck it to the laminated card to see how it was and also to a bit of painted wood. Both were fine, but then I decided I might as well go the whole hog and use the wooden boards, since I had already bought them. I bought my felt at Tokai craft store, many of the crafts stores and Daiso stock it in Japan.

The finished Montessori sandpaper letters work great. Additionally, the letters are raised off the board, making it more distinct.

To make the sandpaper letters….

What you need:

  • 26 pre-cut boards and a wooden box or basket to store them.
  • Pink and blue paint (I used acrylic) and varnish
  • Brushes
  • Sticky backed felt in a light colour
  • Small dot stickers in free, red and yellow
  • Stick of glue
  • Scissors

1. Paint the boards

(I noticed that a lot of commercial boards put “y” on a blue board). The vowels go on blue and the constants on pink. Paint 6 of the boards blue, the rest paint pink.

2. Prepare out the letters.

I downloaded the Montessori font, for free here. I like this font because it is between standard letters and cursive. I no longer have the template I used but you could do this in Canva.
Set the document to your printer size (A4/US letter) then add a box with the same measurement as your wooden boards. Place one letter inside each box. Because you need to flip the letters and that is a pain to do in Canva, you could use this set of graphic letters instead (search for set:nAFSYR2oa-g). Add new pages until you have all the letters of the alphabet. Make sure there is enough space on either side of the letter for the child’s fingers to hold the board as they trace the letters.

3. Flip it!

You need to flip the text over so that it is backwards on your screen. Most of the letters I did at the same height but some odd letters, f and j were too long so I had to make them smaller.

4. Print it.

Print out the letters, cut round them roughly.

5. Stick it.

Stick the letters to the back of the sticky felt paper backing. If you have got it right, once you cut the letter out it should be the right way

6. Cut it.

Cut out all of the felt letters.

7. Peel it

Peel off the paper backing from the felt letters and stick the letters to the painted boards.

8. Add the dots

Add a small green dot where you start to write the letter and a small red dot at the point where you finish writing the letter. This will help the child as they learn to trace the letters with the correct stroke order. I also added a small yellow dot to the bottom right-hand corner of each board so that the child knows which way up the letter board ;should be. This helps for letters such as b, d, p and q that students often muddle up.

10. Store them.

Find a suitable box or basket to store the letters in. When you present the letters you want to use just a couple to start with.

A few FAQ’s

Do I need to make both upper and lower case sandpaper letters?

Some educators are not going to like my answer! I don’t think you need to teach uppercase as its own thing. Often kids just absorb the upper case letters. Many are so similar to lower case that they automatically recognise them, Oo, Pp Ss for example. In all my years of teaching, I never taught upper case or letter names. I went straight in with phonics (sound of the letter) and lower case letters, as 95% of what we read is made up of lower case.

Should I use print or cursive?

This is a personal choice. Print letters are more common, if you think about books or digital print, and so your child will be more used to seeing print. But there is an argument that cursive letters help a child to write as the letters flow from one to the next. I don’t believe there is a right or wrong choice here. Do what you feel fits your family.

Should I introduce the letters in a specific order or alphabetical order?

This is another of those questions where the internet will tell you different answers! After teaching hundreds, probably closer to thousands, of kids to read and write in English, I would:

  • First use the letters in their name.
  • Next vowels.
  • Then the common letters so that they can start making words. Yes, I had them building words before they knew all the letters. Active 1: Just 3 letters and the short vowel sounds can make a lot of words, which really boosts the child’s interest and confidence. Even if they haven’t learned all the letters yet, it’s important for them to see what the letters can do.

How do I present a sandpaper letter lesson?

This post I walk you through how to present the sandpaper letters.

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